King Lear is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1603 and 1606, and is considered one of his greatest works. The play is based on the legend of Leir of Britain, a mythological pre-Roman king. It has been widely adapted for stage and screen, with the part of Lear being played by many of the world's most accomplished actors.

There are two distinct versions of the play: The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, which appeared in quarto in 1608, and The Tragedy of King Lear, which appeared in the First Folio in 1623, a more theatrical version. The two texts are commonly printed in a conflated version, although many modern editors have argued that each version has its individual integrity.

After the Restoration the play was often modified by theatre practitioners who disliked its dark and depressing tone, but since the 19th century it has been regarded as one of Shakespeare's supreme achievements. The tragedy is particularly noted for its probing observations on the nature of human suffering and kinship.



Lear, who is old, wants to retire from power. He decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, and offers the largest share to the one who loves him best. Goneril and Regan both proclaim in fulsome terms that they love him more than anything in the world, which pleases him. Cordelia speaks temperately and honestly, which annoys him. In his anger he disinherits her, and divides the kingdom between the other two. Kent objects to this unfair treatment, but Lear is further enraged by such contradiction, and banishes him from the country. Cordelia's two suitors enter. Learning that she is disinherited, the Duke of Burgundy withdraws his suit, but the King of France is impressed by her honesty and marries her anyway.

Lear announces he will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, and their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall. He reserves to himself a retinue of one hundred knights, to be supported by his daughters. Goneril and Regan speak privately, agreeing that Lear is old and foolish.

Edmund resents his bastard status, and plots to supplant his legitimate older brother Edgar. He tricks their father Gloucester with a forged letter, making him think Edgar plans to usurp the estate. Kent returns from exile in disguise, and Lear hires "Caius" as a servant. Lear discovers that now that Goneril has power, she no longer respects him. She orders him to behave better and reduce his retinue. Enraged, Lear departs for Regan's home. The Fool mocks Lear's misfortune. Edmund fakes an attack by Edgar, and Gloucester is completely taken in. He disinherits Edgar and proclaims him outlaw.

Kent meets Oswald at Gloucester's home, quarrels with him, and is put in the stocks by Regan and her husband Cornwall.When Lear arrives, he objects, but Regan takes the same line as Goneril. Lear is enraged but impotent. Goneril arrives and echoes Regan. Lear yields completely to his rage. He rushes out into a storm to rant against his ungrateful daughters, accompanied by the mocking Fool. Kent later follows to protect him. Gloucester protests Lear's mistreatment. Wandering on the heath after the storm, Lear meets Edgar, in the guise of Tom o'Bedlam, that is, a madman. Edgar babbles madly while Lear denounces his daughters. Gloucester leads them all to shelter.

Edmund betrays Gloucester to Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. He shows a letter from his father to the King of France asking for help against them; and in fact a French army has landed in Britain. Gloucester is arrested, and Cornwall gouges out his eyes. But one of Cornwall's servants is so outraged by this that he attacks and fatally wounds Cornwall. Regan kills the mutinous servant, and tells Gloucester that Edmund tricked him; then she turns him out to wander the heath too. Edgar in his madman's guise meets blinded Gloucester on the heath. Gloucester begs "Tom" to lead him to a cliff, so that he may jump to his death.

Edmund meets Goneril, and she finds him more attractive than her honest husband Albany, whom she regards as "milk-livered". Albany is disgusted by the sisters' treatment of Lear, and the mutilation of Gloucester, and denounces Goneril. Kent leads Lear to the French army, which is accompanied by Cordelia. But Lear is half-mad, and terribly embarassed by his earlier follies. Albany leads the British army to meet the French. Regan too is attracted to Edmund, and the two sisters become jealous. She sends Oswald with letters to Edmund, and also tells Oswald to kill Gloucester if he sees him. Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to a cliff, then changes his voice and tells Gloucester he has miraculously survived a great fall. They meet Lear, who is now completely mad. Lear rants that the whole world is corrupt and runs off.

Oswald tries to kill Gloucester, but is slain by Edgar. In Oswald's pocket, Edgar finds a letter from Goneril to Edmund suggesting the murder of Albany. Kent and Cordelia take charge of Lear, whose madness largely passes. Regan, Goneril, Albany, and Edmund meet with their forces. Albany insists that they fight the French invaders, but not harm Lear or Cordelia. The two sisters lust for Edmund, who has made promises to both. He considers the dilemma, and plots the deaths of Albany, Lear, and Cordelia. Edgar gives Albany Goneril's letter. The armies meet in battle, the British defeat the French, and Lear and Cordelia are captured. Edmund sends them off with secret orders for execution.

The victorious British leaders meet, and Regan now declares she will marry Edmund. But Albany exposes the intrigues of Edmund and Goneril, and proclaims Edmund a traitor. Regan collapses; Goneril has poisoned her. Edmund defies Albany, who calls for a trial by combat. Edgar appears to fight Edmund, and defeats him. Albany shows Goneril's letter to her; she flees in shame and rage. Edgar reveals himself.

Offstage, Goneril stabs herself, and confesses to poisoning Regan. Edmund, dying, reveals his order to kill Lear and Cordelia. But it is too late: Cordelia is dead, though Lear slew the killer. Lear recognizes Kent. Albany urges Lear to resume his throne, but Lear is too far gone in grief and hardship. He collapses and dies. Albany offers to share power between Kent and Edgar but Kent, overwhelmed with sadness, refuses. The play is not clear (depending on the version: Quarto or Folio), but either Albany or Edgar is crowned at the end.